Being A K-pop Star As A Non-Korean

Multinational Idols became ‘necessary option’ for global debut for Korean idol groups, but there are many conflicts such as breaking away from the team.

Unfamiliar language, life, and unclear future… Need to understand the sentiment and culture of the multinational idols.

K-pop Stars

‘Tzuyu affair’ brought attention to the foreign members in Korean idol groups. Tzuyu, the Taiwanese member of K-Pop girl group TWICE, made conflict by waving Taiwan flag in a Korean program. It became problem for presidential election for Taiwan and China. TWICE belongs to JYP Entertainment and it is consisted of 5 Korean members, 3 Japanese, and 1 Taiwanese. Besides TWICE, foreign members are common in Korean idol group. They are ‘necessary options.’

TWICE
TWICE

There are currently 17 multinational idol groups with 33 foreigners. It is because K-Pop expanded to Asia, Americas, and even to Europe. It is a strategy to make global debut easy.

The first agency that casted foreigner to idol group member was Lee Su Man’s SM Entertainment. In 2001, it casted Chinese Hankyung through an audition program in China and Super Junior made debut in 2005. In 2008, SM made success by making Super Junior-M which includes Hankyung, Zhou Mi, and Henry. The title song Sexy, Free & Single from Super Junior’s 6th album topped for 121 weeks in Taiwan’s biggest online music site KKBOX. It was amazing to rank 1st for over 2 years since 2010.

Super Junior M
Super Junior M

Other agencies that became stimulated by Super Junior’s success also started to bring foreigners. In 2008, JYP included Taiwanese American Nichkhun in group 2PM. In 2010, it included Chinese members Fei and Jia in miss A. It included Taiwanese American Mark, Jackson from Hong Kong, and BamBam from Thailand. Besides them, there are foreign members in f(x), Cross Gene, JJCC, Tiny-G, and FIESTAR. Especially, in 2012 SM made EXO-K which only consists of Koreans and EXO-M which consists of 4 Chinese members (Kris, Luhan, Lay, and Tao) and 2 Koreans. It was a strategy to make success both in Korean and Chinese market.

EXO-M
EXO-M

There are foreign members from various countries. In girl group RANIA, there is first black rapper Alexandra.

DR music’s Yoon Deungryong representative who paved the way for the 1st generation of K-Pop with Babyvox said, “Local public feels more familiar with the group which has members from their own countries, so Korean agencies are trying to bring foreign members to make global debut easier.” Moreover, he expected that “These days, the agencies make groups with consideration of global debut at the early stage, so they will continue to bring foreign members.” JYP’s Kim Hyungwoo manager explained, “The other reason why the agencies bring foreign members is that K-Pop expanded to global market.”

Harsh training, but so ‘difficult’ to make debut

There are many ways to cast foreign members. Large agencies such as SM, YG, JYP, and FNC allow foreigners to apply for regular Korean audition, but they usually cast the members through global audition in major foreign countries such as US, Canada, China, Japan, Thailand, and Russia. Thousands of foreigners who wish to make debut in K-Pop world apply for each global audition.

The foreigners who pass the audition become trainees in Korea after they get E-6 visa which is called as ‘entertainer visa.’ The manager Kim Hyungwoo said, “Trainee period is 2 to 3 years if short, and 6 to 7 years if long, but it is usually 3 to 4 years. The training is consisted of not only singing and dance, but also attitude, composing, and foreign language education, but for foreign trainees, there is also Korean education.” Pop music critic Kim Jakga said, “It usually takes at least $1 billion to 1.5 and $3 billion at most to make one idol group. So it is high risk and high return.”

Training is harsh. Trainees work for 10 hours every day. There are many foreigners who give up during this process. It not like that every trainee makes debut. Only few of them make debut. It’s like almost ‘impossible.’

The idols cannot relax even after the debut. The representative Yoon Deungryong said, “In case of Alexandra, she practices dancing for 5 hours, and singing for 3 hours. She learns Korean four times in a week for 2 hours. She totally collapses when she has other schedules at the same time.” At least, Alexandra has separate accommodation when she sleeps for 4 hours, but most of the idols stay in group and their daily lives are controlled. Their phones are collected and they can never imagine making girlfriends or boyfriends. Their diet is also limited for making good body figure. There are many agencies that check the members’ daily lives by installing CCTV in front of their houses.

Homesickness due to language barrier, sleepless night due to unclear future

The first problem that foreign members face in Korea is language barrier. They feel very lonely because they don’t know Korean. The agencies provide Korean education for the foreign members, but there are no interpreters for them. It is to make them learn Korean faster. Alexandra recently had broadcasting accident due to problem in communication. Her shirt was open because she wore small shirt prepared by the stylist and she couldn’t change the cloth due to communication problem. And this scene was all broadcasted. Alexandra turned around and closed the shirt. She eventually dropped tears.

Most of the foreign members come to Korea alone at young age, so they miss their families a lot. In December 2014, GOT7’s Jackson from Hong Kong cried as soon as he saw his parents who came to Korea in SBS <Roommate>.

GOT7 Jackson
GOT7 Jackson

Foreign members do not easily adjust to Korean idol group’s traditional customs such as group life and limit on personal life. A person from musical field said, “Especially, Chinese members are only child of each family due to China’s ‘one child policy.” It’s difficult for the foreign members to follow the order between seniors and juniors. 2PM’s Nichkhun said, “In Thailand, there is no culture like the strict order between seniors and juniors. I always took care of my words and attitudes to the seniors.” Miss A’s Fei confessed, “I felt difficult to make formal bow to the seniors whenever I see them.”

Miss A Fei
Miss A Fei

Trainees who didn’t make debut yet feel more insecure about their unclear future. It’s because they need to go back to their countries if they lose in the survival. There’s no other way than just working hard if they are to overcome the harsh training and homesickness with unclear future.

No system for strategy and management in global market

SM is going through conflicts with Chinese member’s illegal breakaway and lawsuits. Super Junior’s member Hankyung, Exo’s Chris, Luhan, and Tao are working in China after they made lawsuit for confirmation for nonexistence of exclusive contract. If the court concludes that there is nonexistence of exclusive contract, the lawsuit will continue to cancellation of exclusive contract. Hankyung who firstly broke away from the team in 2009 won the lawsuit. EXO’s members are continuing with the lawsuit.

SM is also making lawsuit in China relating the illegal activities by EXO’s members who went against the exclusive contract. For SM, it’s like the members ran away to their home country after SM made them as stars with enormous investment for many years. The Chinese members claim cancellation of contract with SM saying that, “The conditions for contract are unfair.” However, Korean critics usually think the foreign members broke away from the team due to ‘money.’ Kim Jakga said, “Chinese market is 10 to 20 times bigger than Korean market. Hankyung is a role model to foreign members because he broke away from a popular team and works as top singer and actor in China.”

EXO-M's Kris & Tao & Luhan
EXO-M’s Kris & Tao & Luhan

Moreover, it is expected that there were continuous love calls from Chinese entertainment agencies that have enormous capital.

It’s not only SM’s problem. Last year, Chinese twin duo Tasty’s Daeryong and Soryong broke away from Woolim Entertainment. The members also made lawsuit for cancellation of exclusive contract and working independently in China. RANIA’s first member Joy from Thailand also illegally broke away from the team in 2012 and not works as girl group in Thailand. Culture critic Park Sangmi said, “For Korean agencies, they are difficult to make hasty lawsuits because they are afraid of opposition from the local fans. Even if they win the lawsuit, it’s impossible to make them return to Korea, so it’s complicated.”

In case of ‘Tzuyu affair,’ it is said that it occurred because there was no system for delicate management by the agency. Culture critic Ha Jaegeun said, “K-Pop industry is for global market, so it should act wisely for the internationally sensitive issues, but it resulted in problem, because the agency didn’t make enough preparation.” ‘Ziyu affair’ would not have occurred if JYP had the least understanding of China and Taiwan’s politics and society. JYP failed in early response. It was hasty to let Ziyu make appearance. Ziyu apologized, “China is one and I’m proud that I’m Chinese.” Taiwan people showed anger after watching the video which was released through JYP’s official YouTube on January 15th. It also influences Taiwan’s presidential election held the next day, so Tsai Ing Wen who was critical to China won the election. Thanks to this affair, TWICE and Tzuyu became famous throughout Asia.

TWICE Tzuyu
TWICE Tzuyu

One person in musical field expected, “JYP needs lots of time to recover the trust and honor.”

Kim Jakga said, “The conflicts with the foreign members are transitional phenomenon that occur in the process of the system becomes settled in global market. The agencies need to have infrastructure that can include local business system, and sentiments and culture of each country.”